Friday, April 15, 2005

Will California Vote Again on Stem Cell Research?

Plan your stem cell calendar around next Wednesday's California legislative hearings on efforts to tighten controls over the state's stem cell agency, including a proposal that could become a statewide referendum on its performance.

Sen. Deborah Ortiz, chair of the Senate Health Committee, has authored both a bill and a proposed constitutional amendment that will come before her committee in Sacramento. Co-authoring the proposals by the Sacramento Democrat is conservative Republican Sen. George Runner of Antelope Valley, vice chair of the committee.

Ortiz supported Prop. 71. Runner opposed it. She proposed her measures “to maintain the public’s confidence, the integrity of this important research and California’s significant financial investment.”

“We must make sure meetings are open to public scrutiny, strict conflict-of-interest and economic disclosure standards are developed, patients’ rights are protected and the state receives a fair financial return on its generous investment,” she said.

Runner said, “The voters of California did not vote for Proposition 71 so that biomedical companies get a windfall of billions of tax dollars with little or no accountability. It’s critical that we establish the highest ethical conflict of interest standards, true operating transparency, and a direct benefit to Californians from their $6 billion investment.”

Ortiz introduced an early version of the legislation last December. It was toughened up following an informational hearing in March. Robert Klein, the chairman of the stem cell agency and the prime mover on the ballot measure, refused to appear before the hearing of both the Assembly and Senate Health committees, despite the fact that he is a state employee, albeit one who is independently wealthy.

While promising publicly to cooperate with the committees, he lobbied behind-the-scenes to have the hearing put off. His efforts also came at the same time that his allied nonprofit organization, Cures for California, sent out emails across the country to generate pressure on the legislature. The messages solicited recipients (presumably disease sufferers) to send emails to the Legislature or call seeking postponement of the legislative hearing because of the possibility it would generate bad press.

Legislators later privately called Klein his “own worst enemy” and described him as a “meglomaniac and liar(see Roiling Undercurrents 3/16 on this blog).”

The Health Committee seems certain to approve the bill and constitutional amendment, but that is only the first step on their legislative journey. Should the constitutional amendment win approval of the legislature, it must appear on a statewide ballot. If it does, it is likely to become a referendum on all that the agency has done – not just the contents of the measure.

Such a ballot fight would give stem cell opponents a huge, fresh target, one that is likely to bring in major national anti-research campaigns from the Christian right, among other players. That would be a serious distraction for the agency, to put it mildly.

The task facing Klein is to scuttle early on at least the constitutional amendment. If he fails, it will gain momentum and become increasingly difficult to kill.

Here are links to the bill and the constitutional amendment. Earlier blogs on the legislation and related matters included: Robert Klein: The Missing Man (3/15), “Roiling Undercurrents (3/16), Litany of Losses (3/17).
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